This was another interesting week in Yangzhou. It ended up being a sports week. I attended my first professional ping-pong competition, so now I feel like I am really in China. We also held a sports meet at my school on Friday and Saturday.
I started out the week by attending; you guessed it, yet another banquet. But this was a banquet with a twist. For the first time, just about everyone spoke English and so I could have a conversation with more than one person. It was hosted by three of the former Westport exchange teachers, Kang Xia, Tang Wei, and Ji Chunhong. They were holding the banquet in honor of Eileen Zhang, who is originally from Shanghai but now lives and works in the United States. She works in the Westport Town Hall and made a side trip to Yangzhou from Shanghai, where she was visiting her family. We had a great time talking about Westport and how life in China has changed since she left Shanghai more than ten years ago.
On Tuesday evening, I was the one holding the banquet. Yes, it is true. I really must be turning Chinese now that I am hosting banquets. My wife has even taken to calling me Chen Lung (Jackie Chan). The banquet was outstanding. I invited 9 of the people who have helped me a lot since my arrival, including principals Yan and Shi and some of my colleagues on the English teaching staff. We held it in the Full of Phoenix restaurant, which is acknowledged as one of the best eating establishments in Yangzhou. And of course, Yangzhou is famous all over China for great food. I was able to order one of those large, multi-course banquets, including two kinds of shrimp, fried rice, fresh steamed crabs, beef and chicken soups, vegetables, fish and many other dishes for only 500 Yuan ($60). I brought my own beer and soft drinks. Mr. Lee had made the suggestion, to save money. The whole dinner only cost me about $70, including one bottle of expensive Chinese white wine (#2 rocket fuel) which was for Principal Shis husband who can drink large glasses of the stuff. We had a great time and I thanked everyone for worrying so much about me during my recent trip to Tibet. They were happy to see that I had made it back in one piece. Principal Shi said she thought I had lost weight but she was probably just noticing my pale face after all of those spicy meals I ate in Chengdu.
During the dinner, the conversation turned to the table tennis championships, which had been held in Yangzhou over the weekend. My friend the photographer, Mr. Liu, showed us some of the shots he had made while covering the event for the local newspaper. I mentioned that I was sorry that I hadnt seen the competition because I had been in Shanghai. Principal Shi said that the junior students were taking a field trip to the sports arena the next day to watch a womens competition and she invited me to join them. I told her that I had to teach. Principal Yan said that they could give my students a work detail so that I could go. I said I would like to go, but I had visions of my students out on a chain gang just so I could watch the ping-pong tournament.
The next day, sure enough, my schedule had been switched. One class was scheduled earlier and one was given a work-detail, which means that they had to clean up some common area of the school for the period. I hope they werent angry with me. When it came time to go, I asked if we were getting on a bus. I should have known better. In China, when you have a field trip to a local place, everyone, including the teachers, jumps on their bicycles and rides to the location. This is just what we did. I had great fun racing some of the students during the 20-minute ride across town to the sports complex.
Outside the arena, it was a mob scene with thousands of school children trying to push their way into the stadium. It was a lot of fun and I am sure that the kids really enjoyed getting out of their seats and classrooms for an afternoon. There were two teams competing, both sponsored by corporations. Many of the players were very famous, but of course I didnt recognize any of the names. One woman had won gold medals at different Olympics and one had just won a gold and silver in Sydney. Everyone was excited to see these table tennis stars. The matches were fast paced and exciting. Whenever there was a particularly exciting volley, the crowd would erupt into applause. But after awhile, the students started getting restless and pretty soon, I could tell that they were bored. They did have a good time talking and resting, even if they werent watching the matches closely. I had a great time and really felt like I was doing something that is special to China.
This week in class, I decided to talk to my students about the upcoming sports meet. All Chinese schools hold a Sports Meet each year. During this meet, most of the students participate in various track and field events. In class we discussed all of the English terms for the various sports. I explained what the term track and field means and what such a competition would be like in America. I then went around the class asking the students what they would be doing for the sports meet. Eventually one would say, I will throw the heavy ball or I will toss the long stick and then I would explain about the shot put and the javelin. Some of the students were not going to be competing and I told them to cheer for their friends. I even got the shy Chinese students to try a cheer or two in front of the class. I said, you must yell, COME ON. They would quietly respond, Come on. I would say, You must do it louder and yell, COME ON!!! Everyone would break into hysterical laughter at my antics. I told them that I would be looking for them to make sure that they cheered on their classmates in English.
The Chinese students always surprise me. After class, one of my students came up and wanted to know about American TV stations. I told him about some of the cable stations that are available in America. I started telling him about what sports you can watch on TV, thinking he was interested in sports. Most of the Chinese teenage boys are crazy about the NBA. He asked if I knew of MBC and I thought he was talking about MSG (the Madison Square Garden sports channel) and wanted to know about the NY Knicks. I thought, maybe he has a satellite dish and wants to find a Knicks game. He said, No, I mean NBC. I said, Yes, they do have sports on NBC. It is one of the big TV networks in America. He then asked me if I knew of the friends. I thought to myself, friends of the Knicks??? Suddenly it dawned on me what he was talking about. It turns out that he was interested in Friends, having read some articles all about the program. Despite never having sent the program, he knew all about it and all of the main characters, He recounted an episode wherein Joey, the struggling actor, gets a job on a film with Al Pacino. My student said that he got a job as a Bud double for Pacino. I said, you mean, Body double and proceeded to explain all about how they use body-doubles for actors who dont want to expose their own body to the camera. He said, No not body double, BUD double! He then grabbed his butt and I instantly understood that Joey was substituting his derriere for Als! My student explained that Joey thought it was his big break but was wrong.
I asked the student what his English name is, but he said that he couldnt remember which name he had chosen. I suggested, How about Joey, like on friends? He thought it over and said great. Once again I am surprised by one of my students. Just when I think they dont understand much English, one of them comes up with something like this! If only I could get them to do it in class, but I suppose that would be asking too much. Do you think I could do a lesson around the Bud-double???
On Friday, all of the classes had been cancelled. This is quite an occasion in a super hard-working Chinese school. The entire school body of 2500 students was gathered in the rear of the school surrounding the field. All of the sports matches were taking place on the field and only the students who were working as assistants or reporters and the athletes were allowed on the field. I watched a number of the heats. The sports included the long jump, the triple jump, the high jump, the 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, and 3000-meter races as well as the javelin and shot put. There were also relay races. Many of the students were really into the sports and were having a good time. Some of the students were clearly not enjoying themselves and their attempts demonstrated this. Maybe they had been pressured into competing by their classmates because there is competition between the classes to see which group will win the most events. The winners of the finals would be going on to compete in the citywide tournament next month.
After watching the sports for a while, I decided to go and see some of my students. This was easy because they were all sitting in groups watching the events. The groups started with the Junior I, class 1 (7th grade) on the right and lead to the Senior III, class 5 (12th grade) on the left. The teacher assigned to each class was sitting with the group and they were having a great time. That is, some of them were watching the events. Most of them were just enjoying this day off by reading magazines, talking, listening to music on walkmans or eating snacks. Each class had bought water from a water-bottle man and the class had purchased snacks out of the classroom fund.
All in all it was another interesting week. The weekend was rainy and now the air has been damp for about five days. Actually, now is a good time to talk about the weather in China. While China has some of the most interesting scenery, culture and history I have ever had the pleasure to observe, it also has the worst weather I have ever experienced. Some places are uncomfortable some of the time, but there are generally speaking some good things along with the bad. In Florida, you have high humidity, but there are beautiful clear skies. In Indonesia, it is hot and sticky but you get pleasant breezes. Even in Antarctica you get the sun. In China, there is nothing good about the weather, ever. Maybe I am doing China a great disservice, but I have been waiting for some good weather and it aint here yet folks.
When I arrived in August it was very hot and sticky. You couldnt go anywhere without ending up with your shirt soaked in sweat. Now it is the end of October and the weather has turned cool, but it is still humid and sticky. I washed my clothes on Saturday and now on Tuesday, after hanging on my enclosed porch, they seem to have gotten wetter. My leather watch band and shoes have absorbed the moisture in the air and seem to be rotting in front of me. Most days, there is a heaviness to the air that really gets you down. When the sun does come out, you can never see very far because of the omnipresent smog, which casts a blue haze over everything. This is the state of the weather in eastern China and in the west in Chengdu, it is even worse. A friend of mine in Chengdu said that you can hardly ever see the sun there and it gets very depressing. In Tibet, all of the travelers who had spent time in China were shocked to see blue skies, white puffy clouds and the brilliant sunlight streaming down. To a one, they complained about the weather in China.
Well, I guess if the weather was better here, then China would be perfect. Just kidding. Actually, it gives me something to discuss in class. Today I started off the class by describing what humid means and teaching them about opposites, like dry and humid or comfortable and uncomfortable!
Yangzhou, China, Monday, October 23, 2000
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